As I did with my prelude to The Iliad, this prelude will serve as an introduction to both Homer’s epic poem and to my understanding of it in historical context.
To properly do this, I need to refer back to that other prelude. In it, I discussed the tumult of the 14th century and how constant death on all sides led to a breakdown in faith, in both sacred and secular authority. Death resonated on all sides with all levels of the population. It was a constant companion. In an effort to find hope where there seemed to be none, scholars and artists began looking backwards to antiquity, to a time before Rome fell. Thanks to trade with (and some limited conquest in) the Middle East, original Greek and Arabic translations of previously lost ancient manuscripts found their way in to the hands of those European minds who could translate them to Latin and bring them back to life in the form of literature, art, and sculpture. Humanism took hold, the idea that people had divinity within them and required no middle man between themselves and God. If this were true, they surmised, then the ability to create anew is inherent, assuming one is willing to understand what humanity is capable of achieving. The result of this inspiration from the past resulted in a clash of ideas we know today as the Renaissance, or “rebirth.” This, in turn, brought the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation as Christianity struggled to find its own voice(s) again amidst the decidedly pagan nonsense that life was actually worth living in the here and now instead of suffering to gain admission into heaven. Oh, the horror!
As we’ve discussed, The Iliad is a poem of death. As such, it resonated with the death of the late Middle Ages. But it also inspired the idea of Honor and Glory, not just on the battlefield, but also in terms of leadership in other fields. For the likes of the Medici, for example, it meant sponsoring the artists who would rebuild Florence and inadvertently spark the Renaissance, a model that would inspire the rest of Europe in turn. It was the struggle to return to greatness, to reassert oneself as the king of one’s personal destiny, to reclaim life itself after so much death.
It was the thematic idea resonating within the scrolls of Homer’s The Odyssey.
Then, as now, it was expected that before you begin The Odyssey, you would naturally be more than familiar with The Iliad. It was also expected that you would be familiar with the other stories in the saga, though for modern readers this is a much harder proposition than it would have been in the age of Homer. As a reminder, both of the Homeric epics are part of a much larger tradition that told the entire story of the Trojan War and its aftermath. As the “Judgment of Paris” is one necessary component to the backstory of The Iliad, The Odyssey has its own necessary backstory components as The Iliad didn’t finish the Trojan War. There are events that finish that war, and there are outlines of stories that no longer survive that tell of the homecoming of the war’s other heroes. Let’s touch on some of this so we can get up to speed, shall we?
The Aethiopis is a five-book epic (as opposed to The Iliad‘s 24 books) that picks up immediately after the funeral of Hector. It tells of the death of Achilles via an arrow to the heel delivered by Paris.
The “Little Iliad” is a four-book story that tells of the aftermath of the death of Achilles and the Sack of Troy. In this story, the armor of Achilles is to be awarded to the next best soldier in the Greek army. In terms of combat prowess, that should have been Aias (or Ajax) the Greater. The Greeks voted to award that armor to Odysseus, basically slapping Aias in the face and telling all the world that prowess on the battlefield was secondary to intelligence and cunning. Aias, as a result of this blow to his Honor, commits suicide. The story also reveals the infamous Trojan Horse, the idea cooked up by Odysseus as a ploy to gain entry into Troy.
The Iliouspersis, a two-book tale, overlaps with the Little Iliad, telling of the Sack of Troy. In it, the outrages and sacrileges of the Greeks are told, which influence the events that come after, including The Odyssey. Neoptolemos, son of Achilles, kills Priam at his household altar. Astyanax, son of Hector and Andromache, is thrown from the walls of Troy. Aias the Lesser rapes Kassandra, Priam’s daughter, in the temple of the goddess Athena. As a reminder, Athena, like Artemis, is a virgin. The sacrilege is essentially doubled.
The Nostoi, or Returns, is five books of the homeward voyages of the Greek warriors. Agamemnon makes it home only to be killed by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aigisthos. Menelaus and Helen (who was reclaimed after the fall of Troy) are driven off course and forced to wander for seven years in Egypt. They eventually reach Greece in the eighth year following the war’s end. For his sacrilege in the temple of Athena, Aias the Lesser is drowned at sea.
And that brings us, at last, to The Odyssey.
First time readers need to know up front: this tale is not told in chronological order, a point that leads some scholars to suggest that it was cobbled together from a number of different sources as opposed to simply looking at this as a literary device like any other. Where the theme of The Iliad is told up front as “wrath,” The Odyssey reveals its theme up front to be “man.” Though not named immediately, the story tells us this is all about the struggle of a single man trying to return home.
The Odyssey begins, we are told in the tenth year following the Trojan War, which itself lasted ten years. This means Odysseus — a king in his land of Ithaca — has been away for twenty years. This may not sound like a big deal, but to those who lived in a monarchy, say, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it’s immediately understood what kind of chaos that can bring to a land. Consider the historical example of Richard I, the Lionheart. He is remembered in romance as a great king, he who went off to fight the Crusades and had his throne usurped by his sniveling brother John. History paints a very different picture, and Richard is remembered as a good king precisely because he wasn’t there to rule his people but for maybe six months of his entire reign. Makes for a good setup to a Robin Hood story though, and the parallels of those ideas are very much a part of The Odyssey… not so much the romantic thief and all that, but the idea that the land is in turmoil, overrun by those who did not go to war. Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, has her home invaded by potential suitors who would claim her hand in marriage and usurp the kingdom. Ostensibly, she is able to stave off their aggression because there is no proof that Odysseus is dead, and she can maintain the kingdom for their son, Telemachus. But as Telemachus is now in his twenty-first year, he is considered a man. But is he now protector of his father’s kingdom or a king in his own right? Both he and Penelope are in a state of limbo, and until their destinies are declared, they are unable to move forward while their household and their kingdom are quite literally consumed by the human vultures picking at the corpse of Odysseus’ authority. If Odysseus is to return and set things to right, it has to happen now.
But… we also need to re-establish him as a leader of men if he is to be credible. After all, how cunning can he be if it took him ten years to win a war only to be missing another ten years later? And what of those who followed him? What happened to them? Even if he were to show up, who would follow a king who went off to war and showed up all these years later by himself? Looks suspicious, like perhaps he deserted when everyone else was slain. This is where Homer steps in, because through his epic poem, he will reveal the great adventure that kept Odysseus alive through only his wits, and explain how his men, the fools that they are, were too stupid to live despite his best efforts.
Odysseus himself, we’re told in the opening lines, has been the captive of the goddess / nymph Calypso for upwards of seven years. At Athena’s insistence, Zeus sends Hermes the messenger to command Odysseus’ release. The first four books of The Odyssey then take us on this side trip to Ithaca where we learn of Penelope and Telemachus. It’s not until Book V that Odysseus himself appears. That seems crazy at first glance, but let’s look a more modern example of a successful usage of this idea.
Any Orson Welles fans out there? For those of you in the know, you’ll recall a brilliant film called The Third Man. Orson Welles plays a character by the name of Harry Lime, who does not show up until halfway into the movie. For the entire first hour, every character on screen is talking about Harry Lime. Then when he finally shows up, his first scene spotlights him and allows him to disappear just as quickly. To hear Welles tell it, it’s the best role he ever had, and the surest sign of stardom to be able to pull off such a feat where everyone talks about him even when he’s not there. The same is true for the people of Ithaca as they regard their absent king and for the audience of The Odyssey.
As mentioned, the story is told out of order from here. The outline goes something like this:
Books I-II: Telemachus on Ithaca.
Books III-IV: Telemachus travels to visit Nestor and Menelaus.
Books V-VIII: Odysseus leaves Calypso’s island and travels to Scheria, land of the Phaiakians, who will help him to get home to Ithaca.
Books IX-XII: The flashback adventures from when Odysseus leaves Troy to his arrival on Calypso’s island, narrated in the first person by Odysseus himself. These tales are the really famous ones found in The Odyssey. They also serve to delay the homecoming further, ramping up dramatic tension.
From Book XIII, everything is chronological as Odysseus journeys home.
I have some more of my own preliminary scholarship I want to do before I dive into The Odyssey properly as it’s been 20 years or so since my own last reading. I’ll have that review for you in the near future. Hopefully this has properly set the stage and aroused your appetite.